[iDC] Re: Collective Action

nick knouf nknouf at media.mit.edu
Fri Jun 23 18:45:51 EDT 2006

Dear List Members,

Again, perhaps coming to this too late, but I'll try and incorporate  
the recent responses by Martin, Ben, and Trebor.  I want to thank all  
(especially Trebor) for the excellent sources of links that have come  
up in this discussion.

On Jun 18, 2006, at 7:10 AM, Benjamin Geer wrote:
> On 18/06/06, Trebor Scholz <trebor at thing.net> wrote:
>> I am not immediately convinced that participation in sociable web  
>> media
>> is really divided along lines of traditional disenfranchisement. Just
>> consider that in March 2006 the Web comprised a total of 694 million
>> unique visitors (i.e. 152.1 million in the USA and 74.7 million in
>> China) and The Washington Post reports that in March 2006 alone 15.6
>> million people used Blogger.com, YouTube had 12.5 million unique  
>> users,
>> and that MySpace.com had 37 million contributing visitors that month
>> alone.
> That's not a lot in a world of 6 billion inhabitants.  How many of
> those users are among the world's poorest people?

I too want to echo Ben's concerns.  While Trebor mentioned that of  
course all surveys are open to interpretation, I also want to  
reiterate that the same dynamics that occur in collaborative media  
also occur in survey taking: only those who have the time and/or  
motivation to take the survey are counted.

Beyond those matters are the real issues of the digital divide, and  
questions about whether we should consider this as a divide in any  
real sense.  I want to sketch out a potentially extreme position that  
I am not entirely sure I agree with, but I will state it for the sake  
of argument.  Perhaps digital, collaborative technologies (as we  
conceive them) are not needed by the world's poor, the urban  
squatter, the rural peasant.  Perhaps what is needed are other  
technologies, not necessarily computer-based, that improve the  
ability to organize, that enable people to connect with the extended  
(genealogical and geographical) family, that facilitate local  
economic transactions and relationships.  What if the models of  
Wikipedia, digg, Flickr, and so on are entirely inappropriate for  
most of the world's population?  I am not talking only of the  
inherent Western bias that infuses these sites' working metaphors;  
but more about the conceptual models that underpin current software- 
based collaborative technologies.

So perhaps we don't have a divide that needs to be bridged through  
computer-based technologies (see the one laptop per child project  
(http://laptop.org); the details of my severe criticisms will have to  
wait for another post).  Rather we have an opportunity to understand  
what are the real technology needs and desires of the majority of the  
world's poor (teasing out what can be made general and what needs to  
be specific), instead of plastering our ready-made solution on a  
problem that might not even exist.

Trebor and Martin have both mentioned the importance of mobile-based  
systems to people in Africa.  I still have concerns about this that  
largely stem from my ignorance of the situation.  How are text input  
systems designed for these variety of cultures, or are we simply  
continuing the development of English as the imperial lingua franca  
of discourse?  Who is developing the applications: local groups,  
where locals can empower themselves through learning how to program  
services and applications for the platforms, or IMF-backed NGOs that  
again enforce a certain type of cultural/economic imperialism?   
Perhaps the situation is not as dire as I fear.

>> Plural Monocultures
> What else is there on the dark side of sociable web media? Tiziana
> Terranova points out that the openness of virtual space reinforces
> narrow group identities.
> [...]
> These archipelagos of the Internet form what Harvard Professor of
> Economy Amartya Sen, in another context, calls "plural monocultures."
> The Internet becomes a fabulous host for this type of  
> multiculturalism.
> Often, no two opinions have to confront each other. In their own inner
> chamber people can forget about racial, ethnic or economical  
> differences
> and just talk about the very narrow interest set that connects them.
> [...]

This is one of my greatest fears, perhaps partly because I know that  
I am guilty of it.  My online, non-academic-research-related  
discourse consist mostly of progressive media, lists such as this and  
others, and e-mails with friends and colleagues.  My contact with  
others outside of this very limited sphere are rather restricted.   
What happens then when the collectives through which we interact are  
not collectives in the real sense, but rather slightly differentiated  
masses of similar people?

I think that even with all of its problems, Wikipedia and its  
editorial process is an interesting place to begin looking at this  
issue.  For the process of working through issues of, inter alia,   
NPOV requires people with differing views to at least try and work  
through the varieties of opinion.  Whether this is successful or not  
is another question, and I don't think it can be answered yay or nay  
in general.  Yet the process of knowledge construction that goes on  
in the editorial pages of Wikipedia lays bare the real divergences of  
opinion that are present in any plural society.

How we can develop "plural pluralities" (to mutilate Sen's term) is a  
deeper question, and one that I unfortunately can't add anything to  
right now.


nick knouf

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